Cruising with Lazarus
Waking Up From a California Dream
It's been 35 years since "San Francisco" made its radio debut. Scott McKenzie disappeared from the airwaves quickly thereafter, becoming what music critics like to call a one-hit-wonder.
Historically, the summer of 1967 is known as the Summer of Love, a period of phenomenal political activism, war resistance and drug experimentation. Even more unsettling for the rest of America, the youthful residents of San Francisco's now famous Haight Ashbury neighborhood deliberately blurred the lines between love and sex, promoting the idea of "free love." In between all the drug use and protests ("U.S. Out of Vietnam!" and "Equal Rights for All!"), literally thousands and thousands of young adults adopted a new mantra: Make love, not war. The overwhelming majority of these folks believed that they were agents and witnesses of a dawning new age.
It's hardly coincidental that the first free clinic in the United States, Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic (HAFMC), was created to meet the health care needs of thousands of youth who flocked to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district during the Summer of Love in 1967. You see, "free love" has its price: sexually transmitted diseases.
I was a small child in 1967, but I remember that my favorite aunt, uncle and three cousins moved to San Francisco, California around that time. In the summer of 1968, my mother and I flew from our home in Huntsville, Alabama to stay with them for a month. I absolutely fell in love with California because, well, it had an ocean and no humidity and it's sooo not Huntsville, Alabama. One day my Uncle Charlie, the sort of robust character you typically find in a Charles Dickens novel, drove us through the Haight Ashbury neighborhood just to point out the hippies, some of whom -- oh my God! -- were actually wearing flowers in their hair.
Most everybody can think of a time they remember fondly. For me it was that summer in 1968. It was the first time I ever flew in an airplane (I actually took off my underwear and flushed them down the toilet because, well ... I was a weird child); my cousins introduced me to rock 'n roll radio (yes, we had radios in Huntsville, but we really only used them during tornado warnings); and I realized for the first time that my relatives had cooler lives than we did back in Alabama. At some point that summer, between my cousin Cheryl catching hell for drinking Boone's Farm strawberry wine and me memorizing the lyrics to Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," I made a mental note to live in California some day.
Five California vacations later, I finally packed up everything I owned and moved from Atlanta, Georgia to the Bay Area in late December 2000. A year and a half later, I moved back to Atlanta. Why? It turns out that, for me, California is a nicer place to visit than it is to live. I certainly have no regrets whatsoever about moving there. I followed a lifelong dream. It was something I'd wanted to do since childhood and I did it. Ultimately it was one of the ways in which I was able to put HIV in perspective: I can still pursue dreams, set goals and even change coasts despite the fact that I have an obnoxious, uninvited virus living in my body.
Although I lived in Oakland, California, it was only a twenty-minute trip across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. I spent three or four days a week in San Francisco because I dated a man who lived in the city and that's where I did most of my socializing. The Bay Area is a very expensive place to live. Rent is often double what you pay in Atlanta. Gas was always 60 to 80 cents more per gallon there than in the southeast. And there are literally thousands of homeless people living on the streets of San Francisco, in virtually every neighborhood -- the moderate climate makes outdoor living practical; an indifferent city government and poorly coordinated social services make it possible.
Lots of San Franciscans claim that their city is the most beautiful in the world. They appear oblivious to the fact their streets are so filthy that the street sweeping vehicles hardly make a difference. They don't seem to care much that human beings are sleeping, urinating and shooting up drugs right outside their doors. They don't seem outraged that affordable housing no longer exists within the city limits or that it sometimes takes the combined salaries of two working adults to afford a studio apartment. I think it takes a certain kind of emotional armor and a fine pair of rose-colored glasses to live happily ever after in San Francisco. Still, I wouldn't trade that year and half of California life for anything in the world. It was a kind of surreal experiment that tested my mettle and forced me to examine how I am in the world.
I can't point to exactly one thing that made me decide to return to Atlanta -- it wasn't the encounter with the really angry woman who cut me off in traffic and then jumped out of her car, cursed me for tailgating and spit on my window ... it wasn't because I woke one morning to find that thieves had broken my car window and stolen Partridge Family and Donna Summer CDs from me, although I was really bummed that my mindless pop and disco driving music was gone ... it wasn't even because a man was shot in the head in my boyfriend's apartment building and that he stumbled, blind from the gunshot and blood in his eyes, to our door and bled all over the living room while we called 911 and waited for police and paramedics to arrive. No, despite some fabulous scenery and a scarcity of dull moments, I think I left because I just didn't much like living there.
If you're gay, as I am, San Francisco is supposed to be a Mecca. There are openly gay politicians, gay book and video stores, predominantly gay neighborhoods, gay advertising, big gay events and festivals, gay porn producers, openly gay or gay-friendly doctors, gay social services, gay sex clubs, gay gyms, gay restaurants, a plethora of gay bars, and gay people galore. I thought all this was going to be too fabulous for words, but since I've been out of the closet for, like, the past twenty years, it wasn't so big a deal. It was just ... more ... and sometimes more is just too much. San Francisco is a city of extremes, resting at the edge of the continent on an earthquake fault line. Some people say you're free to be whoever you are and whatever you want to be there. I say it's a great place to live if you happen to be homeless, a gay porn star or a hedonist with a six-figure income.
The saddest and most unsettling thing of all to me about San Francisco was its odd superficiality, something I found more pervasive than the city's legendary fog. Nowhere was this more evident to me than in the city's gayest neighborhood, the Castro. These gay men, no matter their age, seemed oblivious, unimpressed or simply bored by the explicit HIV prevention messages directed at them. No matter how provocative the educational materials, posters or workshops, I had the sense that HIV wasn't scary to anybody there anymore. Considering that, since 1981, 19,000 people have died of AIDS in San Francisco and there are an estimated 18,000 residents living with HIV or AIDS there today, I guess I just assumed this wretched little virus would still be taken seriously.
It's hard to blame San Francisco's public health workers (some of whom I met) or AIDS service organizations (some of which I patronized) for gay male indifference to possible HIV infection. The 25 year-olds don't seem to notice the HIV drug-affected, lipodystrophy-riddled bodies of the 45 year-olds passing them on the street. And the 45 year-old guys, possibly exhausted from years of living in survival mode, probably don't have much energy left to be their younger brothers' keepers or mentors.
San Francisco's gay population is living on the edge -- condoms are passé, mutant strains of HIV resistant to many of the newest drugs are turning up in larger numbers of newly-infected gay men in San Francisco, and more than 1,080 new HIV infections were reported in 2001, double the rate reported in 1998. What's going on? Apparently lots of Bay Area homosexuals now choose to view HIV infection as a chronic, manageable nuisance, not a deadly disease. But they just don't get it: HIV is chronic and deadly, not to mention expensive, stigmatizing and irreversible. And maybe that's why I left: I just didn't want to be a witness to something so utterly depressing and senseless.
I also think the lyrics of Scott McKenzie's old pop chestnut needed a good reworking, so I took a shot at updating them for today's San Francisco:
Got a comment? Write to David at Cubscout@mindspring.com.
This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.